(This is the third in a series of articles on the Northampton Housing Authority)
Three summers ago a crew of young painters was doing the trim work and iron railings out at the Northampton Housing Authoritys Forsander Apartments in Florence and Cahill Apartments in Northampton. Soon after they arrived, it became apparent that the workers could speak neither English nor Spanish, and housing authority personnel could not communicate with them.
Jon Hite, the executive director, called the contractor and asked for an interpreter. The work was done under a $91,000 modernization and capital improvement grant approved by the Northampton Housing Authority and the Department of Housing and Community Development in Boston.
Forsander Apartments, Florence
Elaine Fortier was in the community building at Forsander doing her laundry. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a wallet on a table. Who would have left their wallet there, she wondered? She opened it up, and facing her was a picture ID of someone until recently who had been a police chief in a small town in Brazil. At that time a State Police investigator was working out of an office in the community room, and she gave it to him. Oh he said, this belongs to the crew chief of the painters, he said, Ill get it to him.
Down at the Cahill Apartments, Carl Ferret was working out on his porch when the painting was going on. Ferret is a retired building inspector who plays and restores bass fiddles. There were a number of his neighbors complaining that once the painters had finished painting their windows, the tenants couldnt reopen them.
They were nice kids, though, said Ferret. Dark skinned, olive skinned. They couldnt speak a word of English.
Say, what language do you speak, anyway? he asked one of them. Portuguese he said. Who are these kids, anyway? he asked the interpreter. They speak Portuguese, said the interpreter. Theyre from Rhode Island.
Rhode Island is a favorite entryway for undocumented Brazilians fleeing the poverty of their country. In a recent article in the Boston Globe, Fausto da Rocha, director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Allston, MA., estimated that the number of Brazilians living in Massachusetts has tripled since 1996.
The certified payroll that the contractor submitted to the State didnt show anyone from Rhode Island. All of the employees are from Massachusetts; all of them live in the Greater Boston area. Vasili Soilemezoglu doesnt sound like anyone who would speak Portugese, although I could be wrong. Neither does George Kouthouridis.
Those kids were earning $22.47. an hour, I said, Thats what it says in the contract.
No way said Ferret. He had been busy taking layers of finish off a bass he had just bought in Brimfield, and he put down his scraper and laughed.
They were making $5, maybe $6 an hour, and they were probably putting these poor kids up in tents. I know contracting, and contractors, he said. The essence of contracting is exploitation. It always has been.
The Northampton Housing Authority went out to bid on this job on Oct. 18, 2000. It estimated the job was going to cost $135,000. Seven firms bid on the job, three of them local. The high bid was $180,000 by a firm in Northampton; the $91,000 low bid was submitted by Alpha Painting of Roslindale. The three low bidders were all out of the area.
I talked with a couple of painting outfits that had been outbid. One of them said the 100 percent spread from high to low bid was an indication of trouble. He said one firm on the NHA list uses Greek immigrant help, and submits phony so-called certified payrolls. Names of relatives and friends are put on the payroll forms and then they hire aliens. Under state law, contractors working on state jobs have to submit certified weekly payroll forms showing every employees name and address. The form that bidders sign is extremely specific, and commits the bidder to scrape, prime and put on two finish coats, and pay their painters $22.47 an hour. They have to file bonds, give preference to veterans and people who have lived in the state at least six months, pay workmens compensation and employers liability insurance. If laws were being respected, all the bids would come in on a narrow range. If you look at the intent of the law and the wording of the contract that bidders have to live up to, it would seem the authority was guaranteed a quality job, and the workers a good living wage. All the contractual stuff would seem to rule out marginal operators, but the label of marginal operator seems to belong to Alpha Painting of Roslindale, who hired its workers, and the Northampton Housing Authority, which oked the contract without a murmur.
The way it was then and now
I was talking with someone well call Janice up at Florence Heights. Sitting on the curb looking around it was deja-vu time. I had one of the lowest moments of my life sitting on that same curb there in l986, shortly after one of my clients had been cut down by gunfire next to one of the dumpsters. Janice and I were talking about today at Florence Heights, but I kept getting flash-backs back to the late 80s when I worked in the complex for the Hampshire Community Action Commission.
Then old George OBrien was the Housing Authority director, and the place was emptying out as tenants fled the crime, the noise, the cockroaches and the neglect. Since then a lot of money has been spent up there by the federal government. All the architectural goodies are there, regular peaked roofs replacing flat roll roofs, a beautiful playground, shutters, small fenced-in yards to give tenants defensible space.
If money could buy happiness, the Northampton Housing Authority could count Florence Heights as something to be happy about. The buildings in another setting might be small condos, but their grounds and parking lots wouldnt be strewn with trash. On weekend nights in 2004 Florence Heights is still a jungle. Cops like reinforcements when they come here, social workers lock their cars and hang onto their cellphones, and they get in and get out fast. That goes ditto for the Walter Salvo House, now that the residents there have put its drug trade on the front page of the newspapers. Home Health aides and nurses that have to be in and out of the building every day are worried.
I talked with Robert Gallant, executive director of Highland Valley Elder Services, and while he hadnt heard of specific problems, he did go on the record as praising the tenants taking charge of what was happening within the building. The bottom line, I think, is that the Housing Authority has lost control of most of its complexes. By not having on-site managers who can deal with trouble on the spot, they try to govern from afar.
In the prior two articles I looked at life in one of the housing complexes managed by the Northampton Housing Authority. Forsander is a smaller complex, but its problems echo throughout the seven other complexes that they manage. There is no on-site management. There is paper galore that the board has passed to say they are doing their job and following all of HUDs directives, but somehow life deteriorates in their complexes. Housing Authorities in this state are run by politicians, but the politicians, especially our Mayor, do not understand the depth of the crisis. Several weeks ago she reappointed two of its commissioners and added a third person, a tenant from Jon Hites home base at the McDonald House.
Public housing was created in the 1930s by the New Deal, and most of its complexes were built between 1940 and l970. They were established to provide decent and safe rental housing for eligible low-income families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, according to HUD regulations. There are approximately 1.3 million households living in public housing units in the U. S. managed by some 3,300 Public Housing Authorities. Every month the board of directors of the Northampton Housing Authority meets. Some times there are four people there, sometimes there are five. Tenants are welcome, up to a point. Generally they appear, are listened to politely and thanked for their concern, then they leave. Reporters dont attend, most of the time. The executive director gives his report: leases, policies and contracts are approved and signed. Most of the time there is little debate. A couple months ago I attended a meeting. Jon Hite and the three members attending trooped out in back of McDonald House to look at an interesting boundary problem where city land and housing authority land intersected in a small swamp behind the Roundhouse parking lot. There was a feeling of collegiality among the members, and while I would have been nominally welcome to view the gulch, I felt that I would be butting into a meeting of their club.
What is missing is any sense of crisis, any angry debate at NHA meetings. Four of the five commissioners are picked by the Mayor, the fifth by the state. There is a certain air of noblesse oblige among these people, a sense that arent they all wonderful to come down here and sacrifice a night every month to look after the poor people in the community. Hite is very much the charming host and I assume they all think he is doing a good job.
Serving as commissioner of Amhersts public housing board was how Hite started in politics and public housing back in 1981 when he was only 25 years old. School Committees and public housing boards are considered as the beginning rungs for politically ambitious people. Hite, an Amherst native, was a University of Massachusetts graduate, and was a legislative aide and protege of former State Rep. James G. Collins. When Collins stepped over to UMass, Hite followed along and became director of Alumni Relations.
The last director of the Northampton Housing Authority was George J. OBrien, a genial tough-minded electrician who ran the authority for 27 years until the scandalous conditions of Florence Heights in 1987 brought in the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination. The ensuing uproar resulted in Mayor David Musante, backed by Collins, putting Mary Claire Higgins on the board, forcing OBrien to retire, and hiring Jon Hite as deputy director.
Hite lives in Amherst. He ran successfully for town meeting, and unsuccessfully for selectman in 1987. That year he raised a lot of money from Boston-area supporters who knew him when he worked for Collins, but he came in dead last. Hite was not thrilled when he was asked to be deputy director of the Northampton Housing Authority and made it clear that if he was elected that year to Stan Rosenbergs old seat in the House, he would go to the State House in Boston. In a special election, he was defeated by 129 votes by the current incumbent, Ellen Story. I remember Hite unhappily sitting in his office as deputy director for two years without much to do. This is the name of the game here in Massachusetts, finding jobs for defeated loyalists who take on the wrong someone and go down in flames.
OBrien cordially detested Hite, and he detests him to this day. He does not understand why someone from Amherst was forced on the authority. He was shocked when Hite brought in one of the trustees of Smith School, Paul Garvey as director of maintenance, a man who didnt know how to talk to tenants and whose main prior job experience was directing the Smith College dining services. Eventually, OBrien, picking his own day and hour of departure, walked out of his office into the sunset on Saint Patricks day of l992.
For awhile Hite was a breath of fresh air at the authority. Where OBrien was remote from the people in the family complexes, Hite was accessible and charming. He and our representatives in Boston and Washington channeled millions in construction into Hampshire Heights and Florence Heights. Janice up at Florence Heights remembers that Hite used to be there all the time, talking to people. She hasnt seen him up there now for quite a few years. She thinks he has given up on the place. But Janice, who is a real fighter, hasnt. She wants to get things organized.
I saw a friend of mine who lives down at Walter Salvo House on Conz Street at the post office.
Well, I said, "how goes the uprising?
Goddamn, said Peter, Goddamn that Al Wiebel, out there with his sign every morning. Why cant he wait until a decent hour? It woke me up early this morning all those horns tooting.
Anyway, he said, The big dealer is moving out. He was doing a land office business. Used to make four or five trips every day to Holyoke to pick up drugs. He is moving out on the first, Thank God.
Harassment works sometimes. Wiebl wanted people to honk their horns if they supported him, and people do. Communicating that you and your ilk are not welcome here when all else fails, when your letters and petitions are ignored, the police are mum, and nothing seems to be happening. The Salvo Houses location and layout is ideal for drug dealing. It is less than half a mile from the interstate, theres plenty of parking, no doorman or security guard, plenty of users living there, four or five doors to the outside whose locks can be disabled with a piece of cardboard.
The picketing at Salvo House with the sign Keep Crack Out of Our Home that got a lot of media attention several weeks ago was Wiebls idea. He didnt ask anyone if it was a good idea, but just made up a sign and hit the street. It came, however, in the wake of a new tenants group being organized, and a petition drive at Salvo that talked about the drug dealing. The other morning members of the upstart tenants group were sitting around a table in the dining room at Salvo House stapling together letters and petitions and discussing strategy for an upcoming meeting with Hite. I sat there and listened and thought about that wonderful cover of Saturday Evening Post, where a working man is standing up to say something at a town meeting. The people at the meeting were intelligent and thoughtful; they set limits, argued, debated values, and made decisions and overall showed great courage in dealing with a scary situation. I felt myself privileged to sit there and listen.
If there is any hope for the future, it is in the activism of housing authority tenants. Northampton needs to do some kind of clean sweep such as David Musante accomplished in the 80s. Appoint new members of the board, bring in a new director with real hands-on experience in managing housing - someone who is going to see himself or herself as the servant of the people who live in these complexes, someone who will say, is this the kind of person we want to have living with my people? Yes, the authority has to be the housing of last resort, but today there are a lot of useful rules and regulations from HUD that enable administrators to say no. We need someone who will mind the basics and who can bring its complexes back under control. Under pressure from the Mayor, the authority is in a lot of new areas. It is trying to get a new project started on State Hospital land, they have spent money and staff and board time threatening to take Country Lane Estates (the old Meadowbrook Apartments) by eminent domain to block their owners making it market-rate housing.
But along the way, the authority has not been minding the basics of good residence management. We need a Housing Authority that has open office hours in its apartment complexes every week; we need Housing Authority staff who will carefully check references and police records and say no when the Mayors office or someone else well-connected calls looking to put a troublesome friend or client into an apartment.